Starring Dev Patel, Nicole Kidman, Rooney Mara (I guess…), David Wenham and Sunny Pawar
Written by: Luke Davies; based on the novel by Saroo Brierley
Directed by: Garth Davis
Rated ‘PG-13’ for language, sexuality, some thematic elements, child in peril
Runtime 118 minutes
Lion, which aims to be this year’s big crowd-pleasing triumphant drama, is certainly both pleasing and triumphant. All the hallmarks are there: lost children, a quest for identity, based on a true story and Dev Patel (how do you not love the guy?). What it lacks is proper structure. I know you love Dev Patel, obviously, but do you want to wait 45 minutes for him to appear?
The film follows Saroo, a poor Indian child (Sunny Pawar), from his youth to adulthood. The inciting incident in his life is the night when he and his brother Guddu (Abhishek Bharate) head to a city to look for work and, through fate and circumstance, Saroo is left on his own. Anandoned? Forgotten? It is hard to say. Thinking his brother is on a nearby train, Saroo hops on and is taken far, far away. Lost forever. Separated from his mother, brother and younger sister.
As a side note: as harrowing as it is for Saroo to be separated, imagine this scenario from the mother’s perspective.
Saroo bounces along, avoiding some traps and people, falling into others. He narrowly misses being sold into sex slavery, survives for two months on his own and finally ends up at a commune for lost children – a great premise in and of itself. He is then, as if plucked by the hand of god himself, spirited away to that magical, far away land…Tasmania. His adoptive parents (Nicole Kidman, David Wenham) are sweet and wonderful. You’d call foul on this angle if it wasn’t true.
And then you half expect the title credits to explode on the screen. What you have watched for roughly an hour was a very, very long pre-title sequence. Sunny Pawar is fantastic and adorable and utterly dazzling in the role of young Saroo. But Lion isn’t about young Saroo; it’s about older Saroo (Patel) and his quest to find his mother. By presenting it linearally, director Garth Davis robs both versions of their potency. A more experienced or perhaps a bolder, more daring vision would start somewhere in the middle and continuously flashback. Hey, you hired the Slumdog Millionaire, embrace him and the whole structure of that film!
What weakens the search aspect of the movie – which comprises the entire back half – is, actually, Dev Patel. He himself is great, even if his longish hair feels ridiculous. No, the script tries to throw up roadblocks as to why he cannot do this or cannot tell anyone or cannot involve his girlfriend (the completely pointless Rooney Mara) in his search and it’s all a bunch of stupid, insipid bullshit. All Saroo does is mope and shut himself in, attempting to solve the mystery of himself. He even has one of those boards with all the evidence and maps and pins you see on cop shows. Perhaps in the novel we are privy to Saroo’s interior monologue, but we are cut off from that in the film. All we see is him sabotage himself over and over because…why, exactly? Oh right, to pad out time.
This is because we spent so long on young Saroo and his adventures, of which few come back around and are relevant to future Saroo’s journey. Lion cries out for symmetry, for parallel purpose in its character iterations. Show us a scene in older Saroo’s life that triggers a memory of younger Saroo and build the narrative that way. You could save fifteen to twenty minutes and heighten the emotional impact considerably.
I get away from my myself. A critic’s job is to critique the product presented, not to give notes on what should be. Yet Lion is a missed opportunity, a double down the right field line when all the pieces were there for a home run. The film begins with a roar; the young Saroo adventure is compelling as anything, and it ends with a whimper.